Communities of different shapes are becoming more and more essential to many of our activities online today. With this becoming a natural aspect of our digital lives, we start to ask the question: What shape and place can digital communities have inside a professional organization and what sort of value can they generate for it?
This will be the first topic in a series of articles through which we will be looking at the emerging community-driven model of an agile organization.
What is a community?
One of the things we can notice right away about this term is that the connotation we associate with it seems to have evolved during the last few years. For a long time, it has been associated mainly with its sociological aspect.
One of the restrictions of that old understanding is that a community can often represent a sort of isolation. We will therefore also need to address that type of perception and the dangers of communitarianism.
Should we ask different people today what the word community represents to them today however, chances are that more open and positive ideas will be associated with it.
As for how communities in their modern and digital sense have become commonplace in our daily lives, many examples can come to mind.
For instance, as I finish writing this article and head out for lunch, I can find a restaurant based on reviews on TripAdvisor and then share my own feedback on my way back from the restaurant.
Once I’m back to work, I can then leverage my digital workplace solution to find the information and resources I need to better assist one of my customers, and so on.
Having said that, it is helpful yet difficult to pin down an exact definition to the term community in its modern sense.
There is quite a lot of literature out there on the topic and its different facets today. For our context, we can, yet, identify the common characteristics that make an internal enterprise community.
In that context, communities have almost an informal coexistence with an organization. They are not things that you will see in the org chart. They are not some formal organizational or operational group such as a department nor an official project team.
What we’re referring to as communities here are any groups that come to life when the following combined traits are available:
- Free and voluntary engagement in it and/or its management. It is something that you take part in because you want to and not merely because it’s part of your job,
- It is characterized by a common identity and work culture. This criterion might seem a little too strict in our context, but in fact, it simply represents a common affinity and interest.
- Each community member has a certain feeling of belonging linking him to the organization and its people and having a certain influence on his general actions and behavior therein.
- Such a community has no hierarchy per se, it and its members are autonomous in its organization and member roles.
- The cohesion of the community is ensured by a collective respect of the organization’s commonly accepted norms.
- Sharing of resources.
These different characteristics may have different weights and emphasis for each different community.
This may, in fact, allow us to identify different main categories of communities that can thrive inside your organization.
Types of internal communities
We can propose the following categorization of internal communities which seem to appear the most in the enterprise context:
- Communities of interest: They justify their existence through sharing around a common interest, such as a skill, career, passion, or a challenge. This interest can either be at the core of what the organization does, or a little distant from that core. In the case of the latter, that distance should not be viewed pejoratively as it can be fertile soil for the emergence of innovation feeding the organization with new ideas.
- Communities of practice: These are characterized by a proximity to the area of expertise of each one of the members. It is a hub of knowledge sharing. It promotes learning and the development of new skills and expertise. An example of this would be a community of IT developers which allows its members to share the latest coding best practices, new tools and techniques that may improve their work and competitiveness, etc.
- Communities of action: These undertake a project or a common goal. They focus on reaching objectives through the collaboration of different specialists taking part in the community. An example of this would be a community that aims to build a prototype of a potential new product or service as envisioned by usually the creator of the community. It could be the spontaneous execution and prototyping of an idea captured from an idea box for example.
Individual engagement with a community
The sustainability and efficiency of a community depend on a number of factors and, primarily, the level of engagement of its members.
“Why should I be active in this community?” is the question that needs an answer for each member in order to justify engagement.
The simple fact of having common areas of interest with other members does not guarantee automatic engagement of a member with a given community.
There needs to be a level of voluntary engagement on the member’s part which would likely be the case should they find their own interest expressed therein.
- The member could be looking for social interaction with other members or even a form of social recognition: Being a member of a community can reaffirm one’s identity within the organization.
- The member can also be seeking to grow and expand his professional knowledge and experience. Albert Bandura developed the concept of self-efficacy or personal effectiveness. It represents the belief (real or not) in one’s ability to carry out a task. For Bandura, this belief is the foundation of one’s behavior: members may engage with the community if they believe it will produce satisfactory results in this regard.
- We can associate this element of motivation with a well-known concept among community managers: anticipated reciprocity (or giving in order to receive): I contribute to the community because I hope others will do the same.
These levers of engagement will also collide with another type of behavior: the attitude of self-restraint. In other words, to communicate with others and engage with the community, one will first have to behave protectively.
It is a natural and normal moment that initially positions the person as an “observer” member of the community. They will first need to learn about its functioning, written and unwritten rules and the attitude and role of its other members.
One’s life in a community will then take them through different stages: Following this phase of observation (also referred to as “lurking”), the member becomes a beginner contributor, then an active or leading contributor, and then possibly a retired member after one becomes progressively disengaged with the community.
In addition to these main stages, members may also have different roles throughout their community experience:
- Bearer of the initiative: the person or persons who created the community.
- Community Manager: Organizes the community and its main activities and potentially plays the role of moderator.
- Passive member: Consumes information only throughout his community life.
- Active member: Contributes to the community by interacting with other members and by sharing information.
- Leader: Influences the direction of the community through his or her actions.
In an organization, shedding light on and empowering internal communities improves the transversality of the organization.
Their development helps bring the necessary agility to the organization by avoiding the practices of organizational restructuring and silos.
The sense of initiative and autonomy of an organization’s members is at the heart of its operations, and the notion of community is the common denominator of all collaborative practices.
For these reasons, in order to embark on the path of digital transformation it is necessarily to take action toward helping new internal digital communities emerge and empowering ones that may already exist.